Newry canal towpath

It was in my mind before I left London to ride the whole of the Grand Union Canal but the closest I got was some detours after my school commute from Hayes back down to Brentford Lock. So when I found out there was a canal with a towpath taking you all the way from Newry to Portadown and with my sister-in-law living not far from the end, I thought I'd kill two birds with one bike and go on a little explore.

Some history for you - it was open in 1742 for the purpose of transporting coal from Tyrone through the River Bann via Lough Neagh and then onto the canal although grain and merchandise turned out to be the main goods travelling through through it's history as a transport artery for Northern Ireland. Newry thrived under the useage of the canal and a shipping lane was built which is still in use today but more for pleasure boats which dock outside the Quays Shopping Centre for a bargain. The canal itself is now mostly overgrown but a haven for wildlife. I did not see any otters but apparently they're in there somewhere! As I wasn't too sure of the towpath surface, I took my gravel although in hindsight, a road bike would be fine especially as I passed many roadies on my ride.

Finding the actual beginning of this greenway turned out to be a tricky. Newry town centre is a one way traffic mess and where I thought was the start wasn't. If you do have time, starting in Carlingford and actually adding on the greenway from there will add 15miles onto the journey but takes in some stunning scenery of the lough as well as the Mournes and the Cooley Mountain ranges. Once the entrance to the canal was found, the exploring begun. First few miles of the canal takes you through the urban landscape of Newry and under the busy A1 which links Belfast with Dublin. What became apparent quite quickly was that this route is quite popular with dog walkers. I was very polite as I am always and gave an early call before passing, most walkers seem to appreciate it, others still just let their dog loose on the path. Honestly, I wasn't planning to go tumbling into the water for any mutt. I love dogs don't get me wrong but living here in NI, I've learnt dogs do not like bikes...

Apart from a headwind/crosswind at times, I got lucky with the weather. Usually, rain is as definite as having some form of potatoes here in Ireland but was a mild day which helped bring out the pleasant countryside views. It was interesting to see bridges had been built for farmers to move their livestock back across the canal, apart from a few main roads to cross, this was the only way farmers could access their fields. Just passed Jerretspass, I came across a little woodland (have completely forgot what it was called) but had a boardwalk cutting through it's marshes. An early showing that this towpath was more of a nature reserve than a cycle route.

A lot of the locks were now in disrepair and had crumbled away. Some locks were now sporting lovely little cottages or a small community of houses. It felt surreal at times because it was simply a bypass through the countryside. Apart from having the railway as your companion (did not see any trains though), it can feel quite remote. It's only coming to crossings such as the one in Scarva, which also has a very popular and recommended tearoom, do you realise there is civilisation outside this towpath. It can be a little featureless at times. Some stretches are dead straight and open and I was warned of cross winds beforehand and I can see why. There are very open stretches where there is no protection from wind or bad weather. Bail out points? You will have to rely on your mapping skills or your bike computer because road crossings look remote. I know the direction I was heading in but if I turned off and didn't have my Hammerhead, I would of ended up going around in circles!

Apart from the tearoom in Scarva, there really is not many obvious points for a refreshment stop. I had a couple of bars and bidons on me and Portadown is a very urban town so lots of places to stop in and around there. But apart from a sign in I believe Poyntzpass for a cafe, very wise to bring your own food and drink along for the ride. Getting towards Portadown, footfall increases although the path remains the same width mostly so a lot of slowing down/speeding up. A couple of nice bridges to cross where a the canal takes a new path or something has joined it. A few comments from my videos since though have highlighted how narrow these bridges are. So if you're a wheelchair user or use a wider bike, you might have issues getting across and seeing as it's a towpath, if you do get stuck, there's only one way back...

Hitting Portadown, the countryside makes away for an urban backdrop. You pass a rowing club and a playpark but it's a busy town for traffic. Plenty of places to stop for something to eat but if like us, your final destination was further on or want to find more cycling infrastructure, there is more. My route took me up a short climb heading out towards Craigavon but it wasn't long before I dived into some housing estates where a sprawling cycling network can be found. So many arteries and junctions, it's a city on it's own. Luckily I had pre-planned a route because it can be very easy to take a wrong turn. My route took me around the big Tesco and shopping centre and into Craigavon Lakes where I found a very mild but very enjoyable MTB track and I had it practically all to myself. I only managed to ride the Eastern side of the lakes but there were loads of mini trails dotted around, perfect for the gravel bike. Only a couple of obstacles I came across but perfect place to touch up on some off road skills or to take a MTB novice or children.

My final destination was my sister in laws who lives on the edge of Lough Neagh (UK's biggest lough) and ironically after the basically non-traffic route, I finished up on a national speed limit road which was rough as a cheese grater. The day left me thinking this country could do with a lot more infrastructure like the cycling network in Craigavon. The layout here is obviously very different to London and there is logistical issues in connecting towns especially ones in rural areas such as my hometown Rathfriland. Not to mention here that every other road is basically a climb! But I have read that the NC9 route which goes from Belfast to Lisburn will eventually go all the way to Dublin and that uses the Lagan towpath. I've been through Belfast a few times and it does feel a little behind the times with the cycling network. Cycling culture here I feel is more leisurely or off-road. I get the feeling not many cyclists commute probably due to the topography. I would love to ride to work still but as I visit schools to model wellbeing sessions as my job and the schools can be up to 40miles away, it wouldn't 40 flat miles either. It is on my tick list to commute to one of the schools I work with. My fitness has been severely affected by the change in working lifestyle. My commute in London was my daily gym and it has been hard to replicate that here even though I am surrounded by amazing outdoor opportunities. Family does come first and spending time with my son trumps my bikes and so he should. He has a balance bike and scooter so I am at the stage where he should be having those first moments. Apologies that this blog has taken a slight left turn but having an infrastructure like the Newry Canal, the Craigavon bike paths and the Craigavon Lakes MTB trails as well as the shared use path that circles the lakes, these are the places I want my son to use and enjoy. Just a shame there's not more of them...